While the debate around how social platforms should address political speech and misinformation intensifies, Twitter has made the major announcement that it will move to ban all political ads on its platform, in order to distance itself from such concerns.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…????— jack ???????????? (@jack) October 30, 2019
Dorsey further explains his logic in the ensuing tweet thread - according to Dorsey:
"A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money."
Dorsey says that the power of targeted social media advertising brings significant risks to politics, "where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions".
This was most clearly evident in the 2016 US Presidential campaign, where expert groups used the data and ad targeting tools provided by Facebook and other networks to deliver very specific messaging, in order to influence behavior among voter segments. And while there's no way to quantify exactly what impact such efforts had on the final outcome, given the scale and reach of such platforms, combined with their active engagement, it's likely that social platforms were key in amplifying - even weaponizing - this type of messaging.
"Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale. These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility."
Dorsey's stance comes in stark contrast to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who recently gave a public address in which he championed the role of social platforms in facilitating free speech - which, in Zuckerberg's view, includes enabling politicians to not only advertise on Facebook and Instagram, but to essentially say whatever they want in their ads. From there, the people can debate, and come to their own conclusions on what's true and what's not in such promotional messaging.
Dorsey criticized Zuckerberg's stance, saying that Zuckerberg had a “major gap and flaw” in his argument, with reach and amplification - not addressed by Zuckerberg - playing a key role in the process.
Dorsey again took direct aim at Zuckerberg and Facebook within his tweet thread:
"It‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well...they can say whatever they want!"
Dorsey says that they did consider only stopping ads from candidates, but that option wouldn't be effective, so they have opted to stop all political ads of all types. Dorsey also called for more forward-looking political ad regulation, incorporating digital platforms, in order to ensure a level playing field in future.
Dorsey says that Twitter will release is official political ads policy by 11/15, which will include a few exceptions ("ads in support of voter registration will still be allowed, for instance"). The new policies will go into effect on 11/22, providing advertisers with enough notice before it goes into effect.
It's a major move by Twitter, and a major announcement from Dorsey himself, backing up his statements in criticism of Zuckerberg and Facebook.
"This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address."
Facebook is still standing firm on its political ad stance, despite even its own staff calling for it to re-assess.
Will Twitter's decision force a re-think among other digital platforms? Will it work the way Dorsey intends?
Interesting times ahead for political advertisers, and the impacts of such more broadly.